Bar Ilan - Kobi Kalmanovitch - 8.11.2011
Bar Ilan University's Faculty of Medicine in Safed, Nov. 8, 2011. Photo by Kobi Kalmanovitch
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The Council for Higher Education in Israel has ordered Bar-Ilan University to stop registering students for its graduate Talmud program, saying the university did not seek the necessary approval before opening the new program.

The university says the program, which was launched in its current format at the beginning of this academic year, is not actually new and is just being branded in a new way. But approval from the higher education council is still required for major changes, like shortening the Talmud curriculum so that students have class just one day a week for one year.

"This format clearly differs from a regular program of study for a graduate degree at a university," Marc Assaraf, the council's senior official responsible for universities, wrote in a letter to Bar-Ilan rector Haim Taitelbaum. "You are hereby being asked not to open the program under discussion, and to immediately cease advertising and registration for it."

The university was still advertising its so-called Talmudai program - its name is an agglomeration of Talmud and academai, or "academic" - on its website last night.

The ad offers "special conditions for those with an extensive religious background," as part of what Taitelbaum said were efforts to get more students to register.

The council learned of the Talmudai program through the ad, and has decided to refer the matter to its monitoring and enforcement committee.

"I am astonished by your letter on this matter," Taitelbaum said in his response to Assaraf. "We have clarified that there is no difference between the program that has been branded 'Talmudai' and the 'regular' program."

He said as part of the effort to attract more students, Bar-Ilan was offering greater flexibility in lesson times. In addition to concentrating studies on one day a week, the university is also allowing graduate students in Talmud to take three online courses.

Taitelbaum called for discussion on the matter to end, but the higher education organization rejected his explanation.

"The change that was made in the program is a substantive change that is not restricted to the name of the program," the council said.

The council says Bar-Ilan should have sought approval before launching a one-year program with studies one day a week, and also before allowing some of the courses to be taught online.

The council is also asking for details on the existing program. "Given that the program already exists, without having received our approval, we ask you to report how many students are studying, when they began their studies and in what framework," the council said in its letter to Bar-Ilan.

Bar-Ilan University's spokesman Haim Zisovitch told Haaretz: "Bar-Ilan University completely rejects the position of the Council for Higher Education. The only difference is that three classes are now available online. It's unfortunate that the council chose to ignore the university's detailed explanations. It is also strange that the council's letter was leaked to the press before the discussion in the council's plenum was completed."